JUser: :_load: Unable to load user with ID: 7305
The message is clear outside St. Michael’s Cathedral rectory June 20 as Catholics join in calling out the Church for its role in residential schools. Photo by Michael Swan

Anger, right or wrong, aimed squarely at the Church

  • June 25, 2021

Half the country is mad and three-quarters of Canadians are depressed by the discovery of 215 children in unmarked graves on the grounds of the former Kamloops Residential School.

A June 4-8 Abacus Data survey of 3,000 Canadians found 72 per cent describe themselves as sad about the remains of 215 Indigenous children buried at the school and 51 per cent said they were angry.

To go along with this emotional storm, 48 per cent of Canadians hold the Catholic Church “a great deal” responsible for the damage done in the residential school system, even more than the 47 per cent who ascribe “a great deal” of responsibility to the federal government that set up, funded and set policies for the schools.

Speaking up for the Church under these circumstances is far from easy.

“Reporters or people in general may feel that you’re coming off defensive or dismissive, when in fact you’re trying to ensure that there’s correct information out there,” said Archdiocese of Toronto communications director Neil MacCarthy.

MacCarthy has been called to answer countless questions about Church involvement in residential schools. When over 400 Unity Health physicians and administrators signed a petition calling for Toronto Archbishop Cardinal Thomas Collins to apologize and release all documents relating to residential schools and “Indian hospitals” that mainly treated tuberculosis in the north, MacCarthy was left to explain that the archdiocese never operated any residential schools or Indian hospitals, nor were any of them located in the territory of the archdiocese. There are no such records to release.

At a live-streamed June 6 Sunday Mass, Collins issued an apology as a leader in the Catholic Church.

“We as Christians need to be particularly regretful and sorry that we took part in that particular system,” Collins said.

But while the issue of a papal apology looms, neither explanations nor expressions of sorrow are cutting any ice.

“I understand, I fully understand, that desire for a papal apology,” said MacCarthy. “But I hope we don’t lose sight or diminish in any way that really tough work (on local reconciliation projects) that is going on that is not under the microscope, that is not being done as a PR exercise or anything like that. It’s really tough slogging that a lot of dioceses have been involved in directly for so many years. A papal apology is an important step, but I think there’s also much more work to be done.”

Getting that message across hasn’t been easy.

“You’re trying to ensure you’re not trying to be dismissive, but at the same time you are trying to correct the record when they come in thinking that OK you’ve got all these records and that sort of thing,” MacCarthy said.

“This is a crucial moment for the Catholic Church in Canada — your integrity and credibility are on the line,” Indigenous writer Gary Whetung wrote in the Waterloo Region Record.

Whetung warns Catholics they will be judged by their own standards.

“This is something you will wear for a long time,” he wrote. “It is not possible to respect the Catholic position on the sanctity of life when we know that there were 215 children who died in Kamloops… who weren’t even returned to their families and communities to be mourned… and who were left in unmarked graves.”

On what needs to be done now, 55 per cent of respondents told Abacus Data there needs to be an official and public apology from the Pope.

MacCarthy doesn’t just take calls from reporters. He’s also on the phone with ordinary Catholics who want explanations. He tries to ensure that he’s listening.

“I talk to a lot of people on the phone — a lot of angry people,” he said. “I tend to do more listening than I do talking, which is always a good ratio.”

When people tell him they don’t like what they’re hearing from Church officials, he’s listening.

“I understand. I totally understand,” he said. “People don’t want to have the feeling that the Church is talking about bureaucratic red tape, or this layer or that layer. They just want action.”

Please support The Catholic Register

Unlike many media companies, The Catholic Register has never charged readers for access to the news and information on our website. We want to keep our award-winning journalism as widely available as possible. But we need your help.

For more than 125 years, The Register has been a trusted source of faith-based journalism. By making even a small donation you help ensure our future as an important voice in the Catholic Church. If you support the mission of Catholic journalism, please donate today. Thank you.